I can officially say that this is the longest time I have ever spent in a foreign country, let alone India itself. With every passing day the awful heat becomes a little bit more tolerable, the mosquito bites become a little less present (and itchy…sorry mom, can’t resist), and I gain another pound from the endless consumption of south indian food. All the while, I find myself falling into a routine that is normalizing the fact I have been 8,000 miles away from home for quite a long while. My fellow Aravind-Pondicherry intern and I have become the butt of many jokes as we have fallen into a domestic routine of sorts here. We are staying in this beautiful house that is reserved for international guests, but we are the only two residents.
Our days are fairly simple during the work week–we wake up in the morning, eat breakfast, head over to the hospital and work either in the Glaucoma Outpatient Clinic or observe surgeries in the Operating Theater, eat lunch, then work on our projects from home because that’s the only place with internet. Finally, we venture out into the city side of Pondicherry to explore the French Quarter and restaurant scene for dinner.
The MLOPs (nurses) are also playing their own version of matchmaking, consistently teaching me new skills that would make me a great wife to those South Indian men who are looking; I suppose my current skills just don’t really cut it for my biodata (for those who do not know what a biodata is, think a resume but instead of applying for a job, you’re applying for marriage).
2 MLOPs teaching me how to make flower garlands
All jokes aside, I’ve definitely found that one of the hardest things to do while being here is balancing the different expectations I am meant to follow as a girl. Being in India for an extended period of time has shown me the good and bad sides of my ancestral motherland. It’s sometimes difficult to not be taken seriously by some of the people here because of the culture. It took me a while to get used to the fact some of my supervisors, even when talking about the logistics of my specific project, would address my male counterpart and only look at me when talking about recreational activities to do here in Pondicherry. I realize it’s not something intentional—it’s just different. I’m learning that lots of things in India are different than what I am used to at home. When I want to take a walk outside the campus of Aravind, I need to ask my co-intern to accompany me because I stick out like a sore thumb. When we walk the streets at night, even he has pointed out that a multitude of eyes follow us wherever we go, and it isn’t always a smiling face that accompanies. I dress like an Indian girl and even speak Hindi like an Indian girl, but even then, there’s something that gives me away as a foreigner, even in my home country. As a child, when I would visit with my parents, I did not think twice about throwing on a pair of Nike athletic shorts and a t-shirt when walking around outside. Now, I have to recognize that in an effort to respect this country and its customs, I have to remember what is socially acceptable–shorts and a t-shirt doesn’t really cut it because in India, “more is better”. I continue to keep learning a good way to balance the “modern American” side I have grown up with and the “traditional Indian” side I find myself spending my summer in. I want to make it clear that I’m not criticizing the culture here in Pondicherry—it’s just something different that I am only experiencing for the first time now that I have travelled alone. There are plenty of amazing women here at Aravind who have helped contribute to its success and whom I can see as role models. The MLOPs are all women here and many of the ophthalmologists (Attendings, Fellows, and Residents) are also women. They have been extremely helpful to me as I navigate my way around the culture. They are breaking molds and working hard while also maintaining their traditional routes in other aspects of their lives. It’s absolutely awe-inspiring to see.
Besides the subtle inspirations I get from the women, I have already learned so much about Aravind, both from medical and economic standpoints. From a medical standpoint, it has been amazing to learn about the eye not just by reading about it from a textbook, but also by observing surgeries up close and watching physicians in the clinic see patients and diagnose their conditions. From the economic standpoint, it is still difficult to believe that Aravind is completely self-sustaining, and extremely profitable, while it provides so much free care for those most in need. The leaders at Aravind work hard to make sure the institution can run without assistance from third parties, so that they do not become dependent on other organizations as they continue to expand their reach and affect the lives of millions as they restore eyesight. Aravind’s efficiency is unparalleled. The enormous volume of patients they see is both its biggest challenge as well as its largest asset. Unlike other fields, in surgery, “more is better” as the surgeon gets more and more practice with each surgery they perform and as a result, outcomes are normally better for patients as well.
Aravind’s experience and expertise helps the staff see upwards of 1600 patients a day at the Pondicherry hospital alone. They are consistently looking for new ways to improve efficiency, quality, outcomes, and the patient experience—no easy feat—to try and make the largest impact it can on those populations that need help the most. I am grateful that I can spend this summer learning so many different things from so many different people. Until next time!